During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union was among financial institutions in Rochester handling requests for loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, created to help businesses continue paying their workers. The grueling experience has led to the credit union’s workers unanimously forming a union with the Communications Workers of America.
“Part of our mission is to serve the community,” says Nolan Noble, a Genesee Co-op FCU loan officer. “We want to help save for those who might have very little or not have savings or don’t have any credit but want to build that.”
In the second wave of PPP loans, Genesee Co-op FCU was handling as many as a 100 new applications a day. By the end of the program, Genesee Co-op FCU gave out $500,000 in PPP loans.
However, the entire process, which ended last fall, was an ordeal set at a pace that left employees burnt out, Noble says.
“It was amazing we were able to accomplish it, but it was so hard. No one knew how to do this; PPP had just been created, we had to learn on the job. We had this added pressure too … if we can’t do this right, this person might not be able to buy food this month,” Noble says. “It was emotionally, physically, mentally exhausting work we could not stop for nearly two straight months.”
Four months after beginning the union-recognition process in September, Genesee Co-op FCU’s 10 workers announced Monday that they are members of the CWA.
Located in the South Wedge, Genesee Co-op FCU is a Community Development Financial Institution. It serves roughly 4,000 community members, most of whom fall into low- and middle-income categories. Most members live in neighborhoods that have been historically discriminated against based on income level or race.
“I think it really is keeping to our mission—making sure everyone has a voice,” says Noble about the unionization effort. “How can you ensure that your members are taken care of if you’re not taking care of your employees the same way?”
Genesee Co-op FCU employees view joining with CWA as a chance to speak out for better working conditions. Other benefits include health care, pensions, and bonuses. Noble received a bonus this year for the first time after four years with the company.
Customers will benefit from this unionization too, Genesee Co-op FCU employees and managers say.
“We were excited when the staff said they wanted to unionize because it meant they’re invested in helping and serving members of our community for the long run,” says Dan Apfel, chief operating officer of Genesee Co-op FCU. “We hope we can be a model for when other companies want to take the high road and support their workers for economic justice.”
Management at Genesee Co-op FCU accepted a neutrality agreement and allowed for an arbitrator to verify the process.
“The agreement by the credit union’s leaders to remain neutral and respect their employees’ right to organize sets a powerful example for other banks and credit unions to follow,” says John Pusloskie, president of CWA Local 1170.
Genesee Co-op FCU’s unionization comes on the heels of other labor organization efforts nationwide. Beneficial State Bank, a community bank serving California, Oregon, and Washington, won a new union contract in 2021. A union push by Starbucks employees has spread to Buffalo, Ithaca, and, most recently, Rochester.
These newly formed unions are part of a small but significant growth of union membership, especially in the finance industry. Union membership across all industries has fallen 23 percent over the past two decades, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show. In contrast, the finance industry more than doubled its union membership in that same time frame.
Regardless of Genesee Co-op FCU’s place in the story of unionization, for Noble, it represents a chance at stability and growth.
“I really get to have a say in my future. I get to create my career path for myself,” Noble says.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.